Erskine Ramsay (1864-1953) was a mining engineer, inventor, industrialist, and philanthropist. Although not born in Alabama, Ramsay made his mark in the coal mining and iron industry in the state and ran for U.S. Senate. He was a staunch supporter of educational improvement.
Erskine Ramsay was born at Six Mile Ferry, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 24, 1864, to Robert Ramsay and Janet Erskine, immigrants from Scotland. Robert was a mining engineer and inventor and passed these interests on to his son. The family moved to Shafton, Pennsylvania, after Ramsay's birth. By 1880, the Ramsay family included six boys and four girls, of which Erskine was the second child.
Ramsay attended public schools on and off during his younger years and also received instruction from his father and uncle in various practical and business skills and worked in a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, and an office. At age 13, Ramsay's father put him in charge of a store, and he left school. He was in charge of all aspects of the business, and by the age of 18, he had worked as a storekeeper, mineworker, machinist, assistant payroll clerk, general office man, and master mechanic. In the 1880 census, the 16-year-old Ramsay was listed as an engineer. In 1882, Ramsay entered the senior class of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and graduated in June 1883 first in his class. At that time, male students were allowed to take tests and perform tasks that would demonstrate their ability to graduate after what we would consider short periods of time today. During this same period, he began a commercial technical course in aspects of business management and finance and again graduated first in his class.
By 1883, with his experience and training, Ramsay had become the youngest mine superintendent in the region's history in the Connellsville coal mining region of southwestern Pennsylvania when he became the superintendent at the Pittsburgh-based H. C. Frick Coke Company's Monastery mines and coal works. By age 20, Ramsay was superintendent of a group of mines that produced the third largest amount of coal in Pennsylvania.
In 1886, Ramsay became an assistant engineer for the Frick Company but left the following year when he was recruited by T. T. Hillman, the president of Tennessee-based Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad company (TCI), which had just purchased the Pratt Mines near Birmingham, Alabama. Ramsay began as a superintendent and engineer, was promoted to chief engineer of mines in 1894, and in 1895 became the assistant general manager.
An avid inventor, Ramsay was granted his first patent in 1897, for a coal and mineral washer. Subsequent inventions centered on improvement in the coal mining process and in the safety of miners. For example, Ramsay was involved in the design of a mine car with a safety cage and an automatic car stop. Other inventions include the rotary car dump, the swivel coupling, the use of shaking screens, and improved washers. The latter two inventions improved the process of removing coal from other minerals in a more efficient manner.
In 1901, Ramsay left TCI to form, with G. B. McCormack, the Pratt Coal Company of Delaware, which eventually included numerous mines in Alabama. In 1904, he became vice president and chief engineer of Pratt Consolidated Coal Company, as it was then called.
Because of his interest in public service, Ramsay became involved in politics. He was recruited to serve as the head of the Republican National Committee and was nominated by the Alabama Republican convention to run for the U.S. Senate against Hugo Black, a Democrat, in 1907. Defeated in the Senate race, he was later appointed in 1911 by the U.S. Bureau of Mines as member of a commission to study coal mining methods in Europe. During World War I, he served on the Committee on Coal Production.
Also interested in improving education, Ramsay worked with many schools to improve the educational situation in Birmingham and in 1922 became the president of the Birmingham Board of Education. From this position, Ramsay worked to upgrade education in the city, especially for African American children, for which he received threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1920s, Ramsay donated $100,000 to Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) in honor of his mother, followed by another $100,000 donation to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API—present-day Auburn University) in 1925. At the time, it was the single largest contribution to a state institution in Alabama history. The money was used to construct an engineering building, and in gratitude, the university named the building Ramsay Hall and granted Ramsay an honorary degree in mining engineering. Also in 1925, he gave a gift to Miles College, a historically black college in Jefferson County, toward remodeling the first building constructed at Miles College, subsequently renamed Erskine Ramsay Hall.
In addition to his gifts to colleges and universities, Ramsay also donated money to hospitals, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Alabama, and various churches. In 1930, while Ramsay was serving as the president of the Birmingham School Board, a local high school was named Ramsay High School in his honor. He received the William Lawrence Saunders Gold Medal in 1937 from the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the highest honor given to mining engineers. Ramsay's final patent came in 1953, for mining innovations that allowed companies to obtain a larger percentage of coal from coal seams.
Ramsay was known for throwing lavish parties attended by powerful business and civic leaders. Ramsay never married and had no children, but he at one point offered families money if they would name a child after him; jazz musician Erskine Ramsay Hawkins is one of his namesakes.
Ramsay died in Birmingham on August 15, 1953, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery. He was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame in 1998.
Childers, James Saxon. Erskine Ramsay: His Life and Achievements. New York: Cartwright and Ewing, 1942.
J. Fred Olive III
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published February 25, 2011
Last updated February 24, 2012